Maybe this is an early sign of a new niche in the ever-evolving NFL.
The Green Bay Packers now have a player on their roster who has one role in one defensive package: middle linebacker in their dime scheme.
Yes, Joe Thomas also played on special teams in his Packers debut Monday night against Kansas City. But the Packers signed him off Dallas’ practice squad last week specifically to play middle linebacker in the dime, with the prospects slim that he’ll ever play in any of their other defenses.
They made the move mostly, well, if not out of desperation, then the next-best thing.
The problem was, the Packers wanted to get Clay Matthews at least some occasional pass rushes at outside linebacker, because he’s the best they have at that. But since Sam Barrington’s season-ending injury, Matthews also is by far their best option over raw Nate Palmer and fourth-round pick Jake Ryan for the coverage-oriented dime linebacker position.
So general manager Ted Thompson, coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers went a little outside the box. They brought back Thomas, who was on the Packers’ practice squad the second half of last year and in their training camp this season, to fill a highly specialized role.
They’d cut Thomas at the end of camp mainly because at 228 pounds he just wasn’t quite stout enough against the run. They liked his potential in the dime but didn’t see a roster spot worth such a specific job. Now they do.
Could this be a sign of evolution in NFL defenses? Maybe.
The league is getting more sophisticated and specialized by the year, and as offenses go more and more to spread passing games in search of favorable matchups, defenses are doing all they can to keep up.
The next step could be teams drafting oversized safeties to play in the middle of the defense in the dime. Why play a 240-pound linebacker on a sure passing down, unless he’s as athletic as, say, Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, when you can use a 215-pound to 225-pound player — or maybe even a true safety — who's lighter and quicker?
“You very well could see that,” Capers said Thursday. “Let’s say you’re playing the Philadelphia Eagles and they’ve got Darren Sproles back there (at running back), that’s a matchup issue. Darren Sproles one-on-one with a linebacker is not a good deal, you’re probably going to lose that three out of four snaps.”
Now, maybe this will lead to nothing. Maybe Thomas is just the Packers’ temporary solution to a problem for 2015. But it’s interesting to note that the Arizona Cardinals last year converted a 208-pound safety, Deone Bucannon, into a de facto inside linebacker in their base, nickel and dime personnel, and used him at middle linebacker surrounded by six defensive backs in one of their dime packages. They’re using him in the same role this year.
The Cardinals, likewise, turned to Bucannon, the No. 27 pick overall in the 2014 draft, out of necessity because injuries and suspension had left them thin at inside linebacker. They still list Bucannon as a safety, but he plays almost exclusively at inside linebacker in the Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme.
While the Cardinals didn’t intend to start a trend, teams around the league surely have noticed Bucannon's role for one of the league's best teams. As they will if Thomas helps the Packers.
Deploying a safety-type player at middle linebacker in the dime isn’t new to the NFL. Teams have done it in their prevent-defense schemes for years. And Darren Perry, the Packers’ safeties coach, said the Steelers did it occasionally when he played with them in the 1990s. They surely won't be the only ones.
But no team has done it routinely in its dime package. And with the spread passing games trickling up from college to the NFL, that might change over the next few years.
“It is a game of matchups,” said Scott Tolzien, the Packers’ backup quarterback. “There’s a time for that.”
We’ve seen recently just in Packers games the kind of mismatches that offenses game plan for and defenses dread in the passing game.
In the preseason, Sproles had two receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown going one-on-one against the 240-pound Barrington, who had almost no chance against the explosive scatback.
Also, in the NFC Championship Game last year, Seattle tried to get halfback Marshawn Lynch matched against Barrington multiple times in the passing game. On one circle route in the first half, Barrington had good coverage along the sideline and broke up the pass. But then late in the fourth quarter, Lynch ran past him on a similar play for a 26-yard reception that set up a touchdown.
And with Barrington out of the game early in the opener against Chicago, the Bears targeted the inexperienced Palmer with their excellent receiving halfback, Matt Forte, who had five receptions.
So maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when the Packers brought back Thomas last week.
Now, to be clear, nobody is suggesting Thomas is a game-changer. If he were, the Packers wouldn’t have cut him in the first place. Also, his 4.70-second 40-yard dash means he’s hardly a blazer for a 228-pound player. Still, he probably offers more as a cover man than any of the Packers’ inside linebackers other than Matthews.
And maybe down the road, this opens the door to the Packers trying other players in that role. For instance, they already use 216-pound safety Sean Richardson as a slot cornerback in one of their nickel packages to beef up the run defense against passing personnel. He could be a possibility for dime linebacker as well.
Thomas played extensively (38 snaps) in his NFL debut because the Packers were in their dime for much of the second half while protecting a big lead. There probably won’t be any more games this season that they play their dime that often. More commonly, it probably will be for about 10 to 15 snaps a game.
Thomas had a sack and four missed tackles, and he played well enough in coverage for Capers to say he liked what he saw for a first time out. That doesn’t guarantee Thomas will play much this week against San Francisco — the 49ers are a special case because of the scrambling threat of Colin Kaepernick, so Capers might go with Matthews at middle linebacker as a spy on dime downs instead.
But maybe Capers will try Thomas, at least to see how he does. And it appears almost a given we’ll see Thomas in the coming weeks.
“We just needed a little more flexibility in our sub package, and Joe gave us that,” Capers said.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.